An introduction to a city where the fine arts are bursting into bloom

By Hall Groat II

Although the pace of life is leisurely compared to most eastern cities, the atmosphere is charged with youthful excitement, good will and good humor. Texas dwellers are friendly; everyone talks to everyone else. There are no strangers and apparently-no secrets either! Austin is a city with universities and colleges that seem to be located everywhere. The Austin Community College has twelve sites found in many different parts of the city. For a modest tuition a person of any age can follow his dream, with excellent teachers, and can be well-trained to earn his living. Of all the pet names for the capital city of Texas, i.e., "River City," "Sequé City" (often spelled segway), it's  grandiose title "Music Capital of the World," seems most á propos.

There is music everywhere, all the time-all kinds of music, from rock 'n roll to symphony, from country western to choir and consort, from happy mariachis of Mexico to the great oratorios of Bach, Brahms, Verdi and Handel. Musicians from every corner of the world, often dressed in their native costumes, converge on Austin to perform for the exuberant audiences that characterize this super-lively, never blasé, youthful population-median age 35! Reminiscent for Geneva, Switzerland, with its Lake Léman and an exceptionally cosmopolitan population, beautiful Town Lake forms Austin's centerpiece. So lavishly wooded on all its shores, I recall with nostalgia the mangroves in some primitive parts of Peru. Hiking trails form a ribbon around the lake; trees bend over the water and giant turtles climb up, forming an unbroken line of turtles all the way along individual tree trunks.

On almost any day of the year, row boats, canoes and the chubby white day-cruise boats give the feeling of watching a French Impressionist painting moving slowly to life. Although Austin has been a feast of music and a vividly international city filled with a joie de vivre that's contagious, there has been until recently a rather surprising lack of really top-quality art. But-voilá!-that's changing fast. Austin has already outgrown the pretty and dignified Museum of Art in the heart of downtown. Now AMOA has  embarked on a campaign, targeted for the year 2002, to fund a new museum, also downtown, and to be designed by New York architect, Richard   Gluckman. A second site of the Austin Museum of Art is known as AMOA-Laguna   Gloria. Located on fourteen vibrant green acres on Lake Austin, exhibitions are displayed in a Mediterranean-style villa. The site was donated to the people of Texas by Clara Driscoll in 1943.


The exhibition of Alan Rath's Robotics opened in mid-April and was held over through July at the Austin Museum of Art-Downtown: AMOA. The exhibition was organized by SITE Santa Fe, a non-profit contemporary art museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Austin, the Dell Computer Corporation presented the Robotics exhibition.

During one of my telephone conversations with Alan Rath, he reminded me of something

Alan Rath - Watcher - 1998    
Aluminum, electronics, cathode ray tubes  24"x42"x13"

that suddenly seemed important, a fact that so many people during these complex and often frustrating times tend to forget: Art is a Pleasure! While remaining awed by the immense imagination and fantastic technical skill demonstrated by Rath in his painstakingly, perfectly-constructed robots, the joy of being at the exhibition, watching the slow-moving, human-like motions of the robots, and then speculating on what each construction "really means" makes me feel young and vital and completely open to experience. The robots are simply wonderful-a delightful feast of head and heart. One feels himself lifted to a happy state of childlike wonder. Unabashedly, I'm going to say: Alan Rath's robots are lovable.

This young artist, born in Cincinnati in 1969, studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but eventually decided to pursue electrical engineering. Recently married, Rath and his wife make their home in Oakland, CA. In

1981, I visited the Tate Gallery in London. At the time, there was a major retrospective exhibition of the work of the Swiss artist, the late Jean Tinguely. I was so exhilarated by his kinetic sculptures, but also by his uninhibited crayon drawings. I felt I had been "set free." Recently, conversing with Alan Rath, I mentioned that experience to him. He answered that he, too, had been there and had felt such a deep spiritual affinity to Tinguely's work that he had returned home, left his engineering job and then began building the digital video sculptures for which he has been much praised. His work has been exhibited worldwide in solo and in group, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The Denver Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Art display his work in their permanent collections. Rath has become a much-admired and very significant presence in the art world at a relatively young age. However, his recognition seems to have made little impression on him, for he remains an unassuming and amiable fellow. More about his work:

Rath's creations, not small, sometimes quite large, are as carefully and perfectly constructed as fine jewelry. He performs his wizardry with a wide variety of materials: computers, software, aluminum, acrylic, cathode ray tubes, and even antique parts. I was charmed by a small 18th century motor from Italy, imprinted with the raised letters: "Bonifiglioli." Rath combines exquisitely crafted handmade parts with sophisticated technology. We are intrigued by the juxtaposition of the mechanical with the human, as well as with plants and animals. It was impossible for me not to be reminded that there is often a painful conflict between the natural world and the technological challenges that we face every day.

Julie Speed - Playing for the Monkey - 1998   
Oil on Board - 22"x30"

Queen of My Room: A Survey of Work by Julie Speed, 1989-1999.

This is the first solo museum exhibition for Austin artist, Julie Speed. She was born in Chicago in 1951 and has lived in several parts of the country, as well as in Nova Scotia. This mostly self-taught artist began painting seriously when she moved to Austin in 1978.   Since the early 1980's her work has been shown in many groups and one-woman exhibitions, in Texas and also in Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Elizabeth Ferrer, Executive Director of the Austin Museum of Art, has curated Julie Speed's Queen of My Room exhibition.

The collection will travel to important art centers in Texas during 1999 and 2000. Each time I return to the museum to visit Julie Speed's exhibition, or sit down to enjoy her beautifully designed catalogue, I feel I've entered a magical and private place. I feel alone with Julie Speed. I feel in awe before her characters that seem at once sacred and profane. The colors and techniques she uses draw us back to the paintings of the Renaissance. I'm reminded of Caravaggio-but at the same time, in respect to the symbolic content, of Salvadore Dali. The reds are deep and rich; blues range from light gray-blue to a piercing cobalt; the greens are from the color of oriental celadon to the grayish-olive tones reminiscent of medieval clothing. The artist likes the use of figured garments on her portraits, usually of a paisley   type, and these designs are rendered in sharp, precise detail. A painting called "The Holy See," 1955, shows a papal figure with long layers of elaborate white lace vestments that Speed has painted with painful but lovely precision. There is a sharp contrast between the figure's masculine face and the almost embarrassingly feminine "bridal-like" garb that covers the holy man completely: we see only one hand, totally detached from his body and seeming to "float" in space. Other characters portrayed consist of melancholy women, clerics and disturbingly vicious animals, including monkeys that seem to be patiently waiting for some sort of revenge on the human race. One of the most provocative aspects of Speed's work is her use of a third eye, not only on some of the figures but on animals, too. Visitors to the museum speculate endlessly on the meaning of the mystical third eye. My own response is that there's an unsettling sort of polarity on the ability of human beings to see life situations in more than one way. Most dramatically, there seems a strange enigma (for me) between everyday life and what happens in my dreams. Perhaps the third eye points a symbolic finger to the layers of thoughts and feelings that move about, unbidden, beneath the behavior we display in our conscious lives. Her atavism reaches effortlessly down through the centuries. Then is now and now is then. We find ourselves blended into a zeitgeist from faraway places, in a curious long ago. I'm intrigued with Julie Speed's work and have been enjoying the glossy, comfortable catalogue by the hour. Austin, Texas has given Julie Speed pride of place. We're fortunate to have this interesting and  dedicated artist working in our city.


Many thanks to Kate Robertson, Program Director of AMOA-Downtown for her help and encouragement. Also special thanks to my grand-daughter, Kristen Emily Grauer, for the intelligent observations she contributed to the review of Julie Speed's exhibit.

Priscilla June Grauer,
Austin, Texas